Beyond the Sycamore Trees: What the Turkey Protests Really Represent

“Occupy Gezi:” Recent Events in Turkey Are Amongst the Most Significant in Modern Turkish History. Image Credit: Global Post

*This post of mine was published on Forbes Woman.*

At first glance, the recent unrest in Turkey could be mistaken for an uprising elsewhere in the region: People gathering in a large square, expressing their secular-leaning demands through masse protests. But look closer, and you will see that the Turkey uprisings are about issues extending far beyond the Sycamore trees of Gezi Park.

The brutally excessive police force against peaceful protesters trying to protect this park from being replaced by yet another shopping mall, however, proved to be just the spark needed to light a nation, silently building resentment towards Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian government, on fire.

Oktay Ege Kozak, a Turkish film critic and screenwriter, describes what is bringing thousands of Turks, young and old, across all ethnic and religious divides, together on the streets:

The Brutal Forces of Turkish Police Against Protesters Pushed Turks to Their Breaking Point. Image Credit: Flickr
The Brutal Forces of Turkish Police Against Protesters Pushed Turks to Their Breaking Point. Image Credit: Flickr

These protests are not just about a group of trees anymore. These protests are about millions of Turkish people doing whatever they can to protect our country’s legacy of personal freedom and secularism. After ten years of their rights being taken away bit by bit, the country’s young and old banding together to remind a deluded, self-imposed king that he does not rule over the land. That the land does not belong to him, it belongs to all of us…the explosion was inevitable. 

Many young Turks I interviewed articulated a fear of Turkey’s secular democratic foundation being steered closer and closer towards an Islamic democracy because of Erdogan’s right-wing religious and conservative politics. According to them, this self-crowned ‘king’ has been abusing his authority with impunity.

Turkey is currently the world’s “leading jailer of journalists,” and Erdogan’s government has come down hard on all media, especially social media in the wake of the protests. Turkey’s Prime Minister even accuses Twitter of distorting events in his country. Dozens of social media users have been arrested.

Erdogan's Recent Proposed Legislations Repeatedly Target Women's Rights. Image Credit: CS Monitor
Erdogan’s Recent Proposed Legislations Repeatedly Target Women’s Rights. Image Credit: CS Monitor

Despite these efforts to intimidate online organizing, it is undeniable that once again we are seeing social media serve as a lifeline for protesters speaking out against their government, as The Media Line’s Steve Dorsey explains:

The Turkish television channels have shown almost none of the protests in their country. At one of the most intense moments, when police forces clashed with protesters here, cars were overturned and buildings torched, one Turkish TV news channel continued to show a documentary on penguins. Those protests now appear to be among the most significant events in modern Turkish history…With little reliable, non-politicized coverage available from the usual media outlets, many Turks have embraced social media sources like Twitter.

Perhaps nothing is more telling of just how deeply conservative Erdogan’s politics run than his attempts to regulate women’s freedoms. I spoke with a Turkish-American woman working in the civil society sector. Talking to me on condition of anonymity, she said that taking strong positions on women’s issues in Turkey is “an excellent platform for the Prime Minister’s strategy of subterfuge related to achieving his Islamic democracy goals.”

Beyond the Sycamore Trees: What Started As a Protest To Save Gezi Park Has Gone Global for Turks. Image Credit: Souciant
Beyond the Sycamore Trees: What Started As a Protest To Save Gezi Park Has Gone Global for Turks. Image Credit: Souciant

She points to legislation after legislation that Erdogan introduced in Parliament consistently targeting women, from reducing legal abortion limit from 16 weeks to 10 weeks to encouraging Turkish women to bear three children to overlooking Turkey’s continuing child-bride practices and domestic violence issues. However, others warn that Turkish women cannot be generalized:

Turkey suffers from a deep-rooted identity crisis, almost like a multiple personality disorder. Turkey is home to many parallel universes and tribes which typically do not intersect. So the question of what women have to lose if Turkey were to become more of an Islamic state means different things to different women: A less stringent secular government will grant women with headscarves an opportunity to participate in public life. Yet a more Islamic government will painfully curtail the liberties of women with more progressive lifestyles.

Although the Turkish protests have already been labeled the “Turkish Summer,” unlike its regional neighbors, Turkey is not fighting for the basic democratic right to vote like in Iran, or fighting to remove a dictator like in Egypt. Turkish women are not demanding the right to drive like in Saudi Arabia.

This is a fight to keep a secular country that is a secular democracy, just that: a secular democracy. This was one of the most critical ideological institutions of Kemal Ataturk. Today’s Turks don’t want this foundation to be compromised, even in the slightest.

Will Turkey manage to remain a beacon of hope for Muslim democracies? For now, the mood in Turkey appears defiant, as the youth are determined to fight for their pluralistic identity, and secular roots. Dr. Deniz Şenol Sert, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Özyeğin University, compares “Occupy Gezi” to a lab experiment, testing to see if Turks really can preserve their complex identity:

As a young, educated, woman, professional, what I fear is to lose my lifestyle.  I don’t mind if people are doing their prayers. They should not mind if I drink.  I like wearing mini-skirts. They want to wear chadors. I never understood why, but now I am not questioning anymore. There are many Turkeys- Seculars/Islamists, Sunnis/Alevis, Kurds/Turks, rich/poor. The divisions are a lot. But this current turmoil shows us that we can live together.

Let’s hope for the thousands of Turks fighting for their rights, and risking their lives across the country, that they can, indeed, all live together.

*This post of mine was published on Forbes Woman.

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